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[liberationtech] Nick Cohen: The Crisis at Index on Censorship

Moritz Bartl moritz at
Tue Apr 1 08:59:02 PDT 2014

Index on Censorship, once home to the most important defenders of free
speech in Britain, is falling apart. Seventeen full-time staff members
in place when Kirsty Hughes, a former European Commission bureaucrat,
took over as chief executive in 2012 have been fired or resigned.

Among the recipients of redundancy notices are Padraig Reidy who was
Index’s public face and its most thoughtful writer, and Michael Harris,
who organised the lobbying to reform England’s repressive libel laws,
the most successful free speech campaign since the fight to overturn the
ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1960s.  The board, headed by David
Aaronovitch of the Times and filled with Matthew Parris and other
worthies – most of whom I should say I know and admire – has neither
stopped the purge nor reversed Index’s new aversion to tough fights for
human rights.

They fear that what once seemed almost an honorary post, may ruin them.
Under its old CEO, John Kampfner, Index overextended its budget, not
hugely but by enough. Charity law holds that trustees can be ‘personally
liable for any debts or losses’ if their organisation goes bust. The
Charity Commission says that ‘personal liability of this kind is very
rare’. But in theory board members could lose their homes. Index’s
failure to take out insurance to indemnify trustees against losses has
only heightened the nervousness.

Fair enough, outsiders might say. You must make cuts to save an
institution from bankruptcy. But Index’s staff volunteered to cover all
the losses by taking a pay cut and working a four-day week. The Board
rejected their self-sacrificing offer for fear of undermining their
manager. (In Index, as in so many failed British institutions, the cult
of the supreme manager, who must be protected and obeyed, stopped
sensible compromises.)

Nor can financial constraints explain why the new managers have turned
Index from a fearless campaign group into an organisation that emits
windy platitudes and little else. ‘We’ve become a wonkish think tank
rather than an organisation that fights for freedom,’ one staffer told
me. ‘We never stick our neck out on the big issues now.’

Others criticised Hughes’s micro-management. I don’t know how seriously
to take this, you can always get people to bitch about the boss. What is
undeniable, however, is Index’s disgraceful treatment of writers
suffering under dictatorial regimes abroad. Stephen Spender founded
Index in 1972, in response to an appeal from writers in the old Soviet
empire. Index is now abandoning their successors. Earlier this year,
Hughes cut all funding for underground journalists in Belarus – Europe’s
last dictatorship. Andrei Aliaksandrau, a Belarusian journalist based in
London, who organised a programme to help opposition writers expose the
dictatorship on the Web, is one of the many people walking away. Index’s
behaviour appears particularly mean-spirited, as it did not even help
Belarusian journalists from its own funds. It just managed an aid
scheme. Now it has abandoned reporters, who relied on the programme
Index organised. They can’t get jobs in the state media, because the
secret police have blacklisted them, and the opposition press is too
harried and impoverished to hire them.

The situation is as bad at home. My sources say Index could ‘never
again’ repeat its campaign against the Azerbaijani dictatorship, or
successes in stopping RBS selling Belarusian government bonds. ‘We have
no capacity to take on 2014′s classic liberal issues: mass surveillance
by the security services or the threat of state interference in the
press after Leveson.’

I know from long and painful conversations that the world of free speech
campaigning has become a little fraught of late. The Index board had to
announce that Hughes had ‘resigned to write books’ after Ian Hislop, a
patron of Index, said he would resign unless there were changes.

Aaronovitch tells me he’s spending every spare minute trying to sort out
the mess. I hope he succeeds. Because, if he does not, British culture
will suffer. If you watch the television news, you will and see that
every time there’s a threat to free speech, a spokesman or woman from
Index pops up to put the case for liberty. You may assume they are an
efficient and well-financed lobby group. In reality, there are a tiny
number of people in ramshackle offices desperately trying to cope with
all the threats from the state, religious fanatics, the politically
correct, business and Hacked Off. If they go, there’s no one to replace

And go they may. You cannot preside over a shambles like the Index
fiasco and expect that no one will notice. Fritford, a Norwegian free
speech foundation, has already cut its grants to Index.  Other funders
are noticing too that Index is an insipid imitation of its former self.
To put it another way, David Aaronovitch and Matthew Parris may be
reduced to selling the Big Issue outside Wapping station after all.

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